Fracking Update for New York
Fracking endangers water, a precious finite resource, and leaves behind toxic wastewater with no plan for its disposal.
"Produced water" tanks on a homeowner's property in Susquehanna County, PA. Produced water is what comes up with the gas after fracking and is stored in tanks until it is taken off-site.
Photo by Susan Van Dolsen
High-volume hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” an extreme form of shale gas drilling, has emerged as the single greatest public health threat facing New York State. Governor Andrew Cuomo is poised to open up the Southern Tier to this relatively new form of fossil fuel extraction and is expected to make his announcement soon to begin the permitting process.
Much has been written about the inordinate amount of fresh water that is used during this process of extracting gas trapped within shale rock and the fact that the millions of gallons of water used are permanently removed from the earth’s finite water supply. Reports of air and water pollution from shale gas drilling continue to escalate.
However, what is less well known is that the fracking process generates billions of gallons of radioactive, toxic waste with no practical plan for its disposal. Every option that currently exists has serious drawbacks, and this is cause for great alarm because fracking is occurring in 34 states and the volume of fracking waste generated by the more than 490,000 wells nationwide is monumental. Each day, more wells are being drilled across the United States and the wastewater problem continues to mount.
Why should we be concerned?
Fracking involves drilling deep underground into shale deposits, setting off explosive charges and injecting a mixture made up of millions of gallons of water, hundreds of toxic chemicals, and sand. This highly-pressurized chemical mixture is then forced thousands of feet down a vertical well bore and thousands of feet across horizontal well bores in order to crack the shale so that the gas can be released. Although the gas industry is exempt from disclosing the chemicals used in the fracking process, an analysis of typical fracking fluid by environmental health expert Theo Colburn, PhD, revealed that 25 percent of the chemicals were carcinogens, 37 percent were endocrine disruptors, more than 40 percent impaired the immune and nervous systems, and 75 percent irritated the eyes and lungs.
Ten to forty percent of this highly toxic mixture returns to the surface with the gas, along with other contaminants including heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), brine (approximately eight times saltier than seawater), and naturally occurring radioactive materials, including radium-226 and radium-228, among others. One fracking operation can require 2-8 million gallons of fresh water and 10,000-40,000 gallons of highly toxic chemicals. Each well has the potential for eight horizontal legs or more, and each well can be fracked as many as 15 times. Estimates by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) put well development in New York State upwards of 40,000 wells.
Wastewater from this shale gas extraction process is of two types. The chemically treated fracking fluid that returns to the surface soon after a fracking operation is known as flowback water. The fluid that emerges from the target drilling formation along with the gas is known as produced water or brine, characterized by its very high levels of chlorides and bromides, heavy metals, benzene, and toluene, and high levels of radium-226 and other naturally occurring radioactive materials.
Skirting safety standards
Fracking waste is classified as industrial waste despite the fact that it exceeds the criteria for classification as hazardous waste, which requires special handling, storage, treatment and disposal. This misclassification is a result of gas industry exemptions from federal and state regulations by which all other industries are bound. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts the gas industry from the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act and others.
The FRAC Act, federal legislation proposed to close this loophole, would require that all fracking chemicals be divulged and would reinstate the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act to cover gas and oil operations. This legislation has stalled in both houses of Congress. At the state level, the NYS DEC has the power to declare fracking waste as hazardous, yet Commissioner Joe Martens has not done so, nor has he indicated that he will do so.
The other option is for the state legislature to pass a law classifying the waste as hazardous rather than industrial. Although the New York State Assembly passed the hazardous waste bill, the New York State Senate did not even bring the companion bill up for a vote. Clearly this gap in regulation allows for fracking waste to retain its misclassification as industrial waste and continues to provide a great advantage to the gas and oil industry, but no protections to public health and safety.
No good waste options
There are several different methods by which the gas industry has been known to deal with fracking waste—none of them acceptable, and each of them presenting serious risks to public health and the environment.
Open containment basins or waste pits or ponds store fracking waste and can off-gas dangerous chemicals. They are known for countless other hazards and accidents, including walls that collapse, plastic liners that leak or burst, leaching toxic fluids into the soil, accidents involving animals and people falling in, and impacts from overflows during flood events. Misters are sometimes used to spray the wastewater in the air to speed up the evaporation process; however, they can also generate toxic airborne contaminants.
Gas industry drillers in some states re-inject fracking wastewater in deep underground wells known as injection wells. Recently, injection wells have been associated with repeated earthquakes in areas where earthquakes are known to be rare, such as Ohio, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Great Britain.
One of the options the gas industry now utilizes to dispose of fracking wastewater is to send it to publicly owned treatment works, despite the fact that, according to numerous leading international scientists, these facilities are not designed to handle chemicals, contaminants, and radioactive materials resulting from fracking operations.
A toxic brew
In a 2011 New York Times review of more than 30,000 pages of federal, state and company records of more than 240 wells studied in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the following was found: More than 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater was produced by Pennsylvania gas wells over the last three years, most of which was sent to wastewater treatment facilities ill-equipped to remove the toxic chemicals and radioactive materials in the fracking waste. Fracking wastewater from the gas companies was accepted by at least 12 wastewater treatment facilities in three states and only partially treated before it was discharged into rivers, lakes and streams; many of these rivers provide the drinking water source for municipalities. At least 116 out of more than 179 gas wells producing highly radioactive wastewater reported levels of radium or other radioactive elements 100 times higher than federal drinking water standards; fifteen gas wells produced fracking wastewater that was more than 1,000 times the federal standard.
Radium-226 has a half-life of 1600 years and can cause lymphoma, bone cancer and blood diseases such as leukemia and aplastic anemia. Radon, a radioactive decay product of radium, is an extremely dangerous gas and is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. The danger of radioactive wastewater is that it can contaminate drinking water or enter the food supply through fish and farmland. Federal and state regulators do not require testing for radioactivity by most wastewater treatment facilities that accept drilling waste. Bromides are particularly problematic since they can react during water treatment to form brominated trihalomethanes, which are linked to cancer and birth defects and are difficult to eliminate once added to drinking water supplies.
Radioactive waste in landfills and on roadways
Wastewater recycling is another method of dealing with fracking waste by gas drillers and is intended to enable reuse of fracking waste. However, the salts and sludge filled with radioactive material and other contaminants become a more highly concentrated toxic brew that is then trucked off to landfills.
Drill cuttings—another form of fracking waste from shale gas wells—are also a disposal nightmare. Covered with toxic drilling fluids, heavy metals and radioactive elements, drill cuttings are also typically dumped in landfills.
The growing volume of radioactive, toxic waste from fracking sludge and drill cuttings filling an increasing number of landfills has the potential for serious radioactive contamination from leaks and spills. Other industries are required to transport their radioactive waste to landfills specifically designated and designed to accept radioactive waste. With federal and state exemptions in place, gas drillers can take advantage of cheaper, local landfills which are not equipped to accept radioactive waste.
Many gas operators are selling their salty fracking waste for road spreading applications, including dust control and de-icing, which can then end up as stormwater runoff in drinking water supplies. Gas drilling contractors hauling fracking waste have also resorted to “midnight dumping” fracking waste in wetlands or streams, on farmland or in roadside ditches late at night.
Finally, fracking wastewater can seep from gas wells for many years, long after fracking operations have ended, especially when gas wells are abandoned or poorly capped or when well casings fail.
Waste from beyond our borders
Whether or not fracking is permitted in New York State, what is happening to the billions of gallons of fracking waste from other states? Where is the waste going?
Gas industry contractors in other states, including our neighbors in Pennsylvania and Ohio, are currently hauling fracking waste out of state in search of recipients, and fracking waste from active low-volume fracking operations in New York State continues to be generated. Exempt from federal and state hazardous waste tracking requirements, fracking waste receives completely inadequate oversight. Furthermore, the DEC is severely understaffed
Still, how can this mounting toxic fracking waste problem possibly be swept under the rug?
Local municipalities step up
In an effort to provide protection for their own residents in the absence of federal and state regulations, and in view of lax oversight, local municipalities have begun to address this question by passing legislation to ban the use of fracking brine for road applications and by prohibiting the acceptance of fracking waste at their local wastewater treatment facilities. Nassau, Suffolk and Ulster Counties have already passed legislation addressing many of these issues. In cooperation with a working group of concerned local organizations, Westchester and Putnam Counties are also studying these concerns and Westchester has begun drafting legislation.
As thousands of wells are added each year across the United States, the nightmare of the disposal of massive amounts of radioactive, toxic drilling waste, and the tens of thousands of trucks hauling it, grows worse. Given the pollution of our air and water and the contamination of our food supply from shale gas drilling and its infrastructure, the only realistic option is to ban hydrofracking in New York, ban receipt of all drilling waste from out of state, and implement a strong energy policy promoting renewable energy resources and significant conservation measures.
This article is excerpted from an article originally submitted for publication in the Croton Watershed Clean Water Coalition’s newsletter.
Ellen Weininger is educational outreach coordinator for Grassroots Environmental Education, and Susan Van Dolsen is co-organizer for Westchester for Change. For more info, visit GrassrootsInfo.org and facebook.com/groups/132597116767296/?ref=ts or email email@example.com.